From the Bengali word for “little boat,” a dinghy is a small boat carried or towed by a larger vessel as a tender, intended for transporting passengers to and from a mother ship, for running errands, for taking pleasure trips, and for use as a lifeboat if needed. Dinghies can range from about 6 to 20 feet in length, are durable, buoyant, and have great carrying capacity; some have wood transoms for engine mounting. One drawback is that dinghies can be difficult to row and tow because of their blunt bows. 

It is important to remember that despite their size, dinghies are still considered vessels and subject to federal, state, and foreign country operation and safety requirements. Dinghies should be equipped with the following:

  • Life jackets 
  • Flotation cushion 
  • Anchor, anchor chain, and line
  • Flares
  • Whistle or air horn 
  • Waterproof electrical/fuel systems 
  • Hand-held marine radio 
  • Navigation lights (at least a stern light)  

Other safety precautions include:  

  • Particularly when boarding or disembarking a dinghy, keep both hands free, and remember the old nautical saying, “one hand for you, one for the boat.” 
  • If equipped, use the engine kill switch lanyard (also called the dead man’s switch) when operating the engine. The lanyard attaches to the operator’s wrist or belt, the other end connects to the engine’s automatic shutdown mechanism. If the driver is thrown from the boat, the lanyard pulls the kill switch and stops the propeller. 
  • Equip the dinghy with oars or a paddle. If the engine fails, oars/paddles can propel the dinghy out of trouble (though slowly).  
  • Have available a whistle or air horn and basic bailing equipment — a water scoop or bucket and a large sponge.
  • Carry a dinghy anchor, with anchor chain and rode length appropriate for the cruising area.
  • When docking to another vessel, position the dinghy so it will not be trapped under swim steps and avoids ventilation ports, bow thruster intakes, propellers, and hull protrusions. 
  • In the event that the dinghy capsizes, stay with the boat, if possible. Use a whistle or any other means to draw attention and to get help.   

In the United States, most motor-powered dinghies must display a registration number, which is usually identical to the mother ship number, but with the numeral 1 added at the end.  

Protecting a Dinghy

Protecting a dinghy and its equipment at a dock or anchorage provides peace of mind — and ensures that it will be available for a return trip to the mother ship. Here are some tips to secure a dinghy:  

  • Before docking, contact the marina dockmaster via marine radio to determine the best place to dock and ask about the level of security.
  • Lock the dinghy to the dock with galvanized or stainless steel chain or plastic-coated cable looped through the dinghy’s bow eye and attached with a lock to the dock. 
  • If docking for more than a few hours, check local tide tables and ensure that the dock lines have enough slack to handle an incoming or ebb tide. A dinghy hung up above or below a dock can cause serious damage. 
  • Disable the engine by removing the kill switch lanyard, and take the lanyard with you. Kill switch fittings are somewhat universal, so a Mercury engine kill switch and lanyard, for example, may also fit another engine make. For extra protection, remove a spark plug or the fuel line.     
  • Maritime security experts recommend that dinghies not be named in a way that could match it with the mother boat. A docked dinghy usually means that the mother ship may be unoccupied — an invitation to theft, especially at night.

How to Dock a Dinghy

The same characteristics that make dinghies so practical also create challenges when tying up to a dock, an anchorage, or a beach. Dinghies catch a lot of wind — even in mild winds and calm seas, ride the top of waves with little resistance, exerting a strong pull on the anchor, chain, and rode.

Because of their lightweight, dinghies are very much affected by the power of the wind and currents, especially when docking. Docking a dinghy can be a real challenge with the wind, (downwind) or with a current (downstream). This means that the wind or current is coming from behind the boat (or is on) the stern, requiring more docking skill than when the wind or current is coming from (or is on) the bow. With some practice, dinghy drivers can take advantage of the wind or current — or both — when docking, making the operation seem effortless and even graceful! Some tips for dinghy docking follow: 

  • On wide beaches, haul out the dinghy well above the tide line and bury the anchor or tie the bowline to a tree or rock for insurance. 
  • Make sure the anchor chain and rode are of adequate length and weight to counteract wave action and have enough stretch to absorb most of the wave pull. 
  • Use the ring on the bow to secure the bowline to the dinghy. 30 to 50 feet of nylon line should be adequate to handle most docking situations. 
  • A practical and inexpensive solution for dinghy anchoring is to utilize the mother boat’s spare anchor and rode if the size and chain length are not too much for the dinghy. 
  • The best bet for a dinghy anchor is the Danforth type, designed to hold in almost any bottom condition. Anchor weight depends on dinghy length, but overall, anchors in the 5 to 12-pound range should do the job. 
  • In locations where a beach is not suitable for landing, combine the bowline and anchor line to keep a dinghy accessible, but off the shore. Temporarily land the dinghy and thread the bowline through the anchor line eye so the anchor line slides freely along the bowline. Push the dinghy out and set the anchor by throwing it as far into the water as possible, then tie off the bowline on land. When ready to depart, haul in the bowline, which will eventually bring the dinghy to shore. 
  • When docking in a downwind or downstream situation, the wind or current may push the dinghy, making it difficult to stop at the desired docking point. To counteract the push, maneuver the dinghy so the bow is at an angle to the dock, and let the wind/current move the boat forward. Control direction with the rudder and speed by alternating between forward and reverse gears. Have the bow line ready to throw to the dock and, if conditions warrant, secure the boat at both the bow and the stern.  

Keep in mind that while dinghies make boating much more convenient and fun, they are still boats. They need constant care and are subject to federal and foreign country registration requirements. Because of their unique characteristics, dinghy operators should maneuver at manageable speeds, pay close attention to weight limits and balancing, and have on board the same safety equipment as required for larger vessels. 

With correct operation and care, dinghies can not only act as a lifeboat, but also give you the freedom to leave your yacht or ship and set sail for smaller waterways, exploring new places along the way.